Like horses being led to the post parade at Saratoga, a string of Democratic Presidential hopefuls gathered in the Hilton New York on July 28 to 30 to try out the themes and styles they may use in the 2004 campaign. But the three-day event also revealed a series of divisions between the conference participants, party chairman Terry McAuliffe and former Vice President Al Gore over how best to reap political gain from the corporate scandals engulfing companies with close ties to the Bush White House.
On one side of the divide were the event’s organizers, the Democratic Leadership Council, whose founder, Al From, has urged Democrats to reject soak-the-rich rhetoric of Mr. Gore for his aggressively populist “the people vs. the powerful” theme in the 2000 Presidential campaign. On the other side were Mr. Gore’s supporters, who rejected the criticism, and Mr. McAuliffe, who was concerned about some Democrats’ reluctance to lace into the Bush administration’s links to big business with sufficient enthusiasm.
“It has been tough since Sept. 11 to get some of our Democrats out there with a tough voice,” Mr. McAuliffe said in an interview with The Observer . “I think it’s changed over the last month, but I would like them all out there being as aggressive as I am on the Bush administration.”
Mindful of Mr. From’s call for caution, speakers at the event-North Carolina Senator John Edwards, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Mr. Gore’s erstwhile running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman-treaded carefully as they critiqued the Bush administration. While they were boosterish and sharply partisan, bludgeoning Mr. Bush on everything from the environment to his vacation habits, they took extra care to avoid any whiff of hostility towards business in general. They stressed the “few bad apples” theory of corporate mismanagement. Some, like Mr. Lieberman and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, went even further, joining Mr. From by openly criticizing the class-war language of the Gore campaign.
But such introspection was clearly an annoyance to Mr. McAuliffe, who was less than delighted to see the D.L.C.’s “National Conversation” become, in part, a finger-pointing session over the 2000 defeat. Asked by The Observer about criticism leveled at Mr. Gore by Mr. Lieberman and Mr. From, Mr. McAuliffe didn’t hide his annoyance. “We have the whole country in play [in 2002]-36 governors, 34 Senators, the whole House-and people talk about how a campaign was run in 2000,” he said. “I have zero time for that.”
A spokesman for Mr. Gore, who did not attend the conference, cited a scheduling conflict. But the conflict was likely a pretense-Mr. Gore was spotted dining out in Manhattan while the convention was in full swing. The real reason the former Vice President didn’t show, according to a Gore aide, was that “politically, it makes no sense for a man who is way up in the polls to go to a cattle call with all the people who are in single digits.”
Mr. Gore’s supporters were also critical of the tone of the gathering. “Reformist history rarely, if ever, results in anything good coming from it,” said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera. “Al Gore isn’t going to make any apologies for the campaign he ran.”
The antipathy at the gathering towards Mr. Gore, who will be the early favorite for the ’04 nomination if he runs again, was apparent as conference-goers chatted about their preferred candidates, all of whom were in attendance. But there was also a very real Old Democrat versus New Democrat conflict that, ironically, Al Gore had fought and won at Bill Clinton’s side-and with the help of Mr. From. In 1992, the two young Southerners presented themselves as alternatives to the party’s traditional liberal populism, emphasizing instead a middle-of-the-road pragmatism.
In an interview prior to the conference, Mr. From said that Democrats would have to be “progressive, not populist” in their reaction to the nation’s corporate scandals. “The Democrats shouldn’t be waging class warfare,” he said. Asked what role he hoped to play in the Democratic selection process, Mr. From had a simple answer: “Since we helped design the only strategy in 60 years that got a Democratic elected to two terms, we hope to become a rite of passage to the Presidency,” he told The Observer .
The speakers at the conference-at least those with aspirations to national office- turned in generally strong performances, with Senator Hillary Clinton generating especially positive reaction. They also seemed to take Mr. From’s advice about avoiding populism seriously, and quite literally, as they carefully couched criticism of the Bush administration and corporate scandal in terms of individual wrongdoers, avoiding any of the sharp, class-driven rhetoric that characterized the Gore campaign.
“The American people don’t want us to tear down America’s corporations,” said Mr. Edwards in his speech to a crowd of about 400 in front of a giant backdrop with the words ‘Security, Opportunity, Responsibility’ imposed on a giant American flag.
Mr. Gephardt, who ran a famously populist, anti-free-trade Presidential campaign in 1988, was similarly cautious on the subject of business.
“Let me make it clear that most American businesses-and most American businesspeople-are responsible and do run good businesses, and do recognize opportunity and responsibility,” he told the crowd. “How many times in the last few weeks have I had C.E.O.’s come up to me and say, ‘Clean it up, clean it up. I run a good business; I do things right. I put out honest information. And I am being hurt by the bad actors and actresses who have done things wrong. I want you to clean it up.'”
Mr. Lieberman’s speech was of a particularly deliberate nature, and afterwards, he distanced himself explicitly from the campaign that he was a part of in 2000. “It ultimately made it more difficult for us to gain the support of some of the middle-class, independent voters who don’t see America as ‘us versus them,’ but more in [John] Kennedy’s terms of ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.'” Mr. Lieberman wants to run for President, but has said that he will stand aside and support Mr. Gore if the former Vice President runs again.
It was Mr. McAuliffe, the shaggy-haired party chairman whose job consists of almost equal parts fund-raising and cheerleading, who gave one of the most strident speeches of the whole affair. “These Republicans want to play tough,” he yelled. “I promise you, we’ll play tougher! You punch us? We’ll punch you harder! … George W. Bush is going to wake up on the morning of Nov. 6., he’s going to see newspapers screaming about Democratic sweeps all across this country. And you know what? He’s going back to bed!”
Mr. McAuliffe said after the speech that it was his responsibility as the party leader to provide a clear line of attack on the Bush administration, without the cautious centrism that might have restrained some of his fellow Democrats at the conference. “It’s my job to delineate the real issues between Bush and the Democrats, and I will say things that others can’t,” he said. “Everyone knows that’s what I’m going to do when you invite me to one of these things. There were no illusions by the D.L.C. about what I was going to say.”
Mr. McAuliffe also hinted that he’d like to see other prominent Democrats stop emulating Mr. From’s disdain for populism. “It’s [all in] your definition of populism,” he said. “If it means who’s out there delineating the differences-what’s wrong with Harken and Halliburton [Mr. Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's former companies, respectively], what’s wrong with the Bush administration, the special interests and all that-you can call it populism. I’d love everybody else to be as strong as I am on these issues, because people are going to vote at the polls for the people they believe are most articulating those differences.”
For all the apparent disagreement, it can be argued that the differences are all stylistic anyway. Mr. Gore, for example, was the chosen candidate of the D.L.C. in the last election, and the group’s leadership suggested that his mistakes had more to do with how he packaged himself than anything else. “[He] has a great New Democratic record and ran a solid New Democrat campaign,” D.L.C. president Bruce Reed told the Associated Press, “but as the vice president himself has said, sometimes in the campaign your true colors don’t come through.”
Mr. Gore’s loyalists disagree. “The D.L.C.’s own Web site defines what it is to adhere to the ‘Third Way,'” said Mr. Cabrera. “You know you’re a New Democrat if you believe in ‘renewing our democracy by challenging the special interests and returning power to citizens and local institutions.’ I defer to the Democratic Leadership Council.”